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Water’s Edge: Industry versus nature in Canada’s busiest port

Larry Pynn, Vancouver Sun, May 9, 2016

When we look out at the craggy industrial face of the Port of Vancouver, we see freighters from around the world, piles of sulphur and coal, grain unloaded from rail cars into silos, commercial float planes, tugs, ferries and gantries moving container cargo.

Much less obvious is the natural world that defies the odds and makes its home within the bustling waters and unyielding infrastructure of the inner harbour.

At Harbour Green Park at Cordova and Bute, a half-circle of large orange buoys gives no indication of the protected forests of bull kelp and fish flourishing beneath the surface.

Next door, Vancouver Convention Centre delegates are oblivious to the range of conservation measures built in to the facility. Crew substituted clean soils for sediments polluted with old industrial hydrocarbons, constructed reef, shoal and islet habitat, and installed pipes for rockfish, and heavy chains for invertebrates. Some 100 marine species are thought to frequent the site, about one-third more than before construction of the facility in 2009.

“It’s pretty unique, compared to other harbours in the world,” Carrie Brown, the port’s environmental director, says of the wildlife. “We have something very special here.”

Society tends to focus on the value of residential properties on the waterfront, but the inner harbour is where you find the big numbers. According to BC Assessment figures compiled by Landcor Data Corp, the Vancouver Convention Centre tops the scale at $658 million, followed by Canada Place at $117 million and Vancouver Shipyards at $79 million.

The port’s value to the natural world — invertebrates, fish, birds, even visiting killer whales — is not as easy valued, and nor is critical habitat already lost to industry.

A new report by engineering consultants Kerr Wood Leidal for the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation notes that about half of Burrard Inlet’s shoreline has been altered, 53 kilometres of natural shoreline lost, and 93 per cent of the inlet’s estuaries gobbled up by development.

There is no quick fix for reversing more than a century of industrial degradation in the inner harbour.

A closer look

Just getting out to see the issues is no easy task.

Rowing and paddling are prohibited from Lions Gate Bridge to Berry Point just east of Second Narrows Bridge, with an exception made for the Vancouver Rowing Club in Coal Harbour near Stanley Park.

So I leave my kayak on shore and join Rob Butler and Rod MacVicar of the Pacific Wildlife Foundation, along with Brown, aboard a seven-metre aluminum vessel for a close-up look at the tension between nature and industry.

We have barely left dock at Harbour Green Park, proceeding into a brewing storm, when Butler raises a pair of binoculars toward two western grebes within a much larger flock of surf scoters.

“We used to see hundreds of them in the mid-90s,” reflects the former federal bird scientist. “People would hear them calling. Now there’s just a handful.”

The grebes have long, slender swanlike necks and one of the world’s most remarkable mating dances — pairs rising up in unison and paddling rapidly across the water surface. The species is provincially red-listed, at risk, in part, due to human disturbance on its inland breeding grounds: Salmon Arm, north Okanagan Lake and Duck Lake near Creston. While wintering in areas such as Vancouver harbour, it is also vulnerable to pollution and a lack of forage fish such as sand lance and herring.

Burrard Inlet and English Bay officially comprise an Important Bird Area, a unique declaration in Canada for the inner harbour of a major port. While the designation has no teeth, it does highlight the port’s global significance for the grebe, Barrow’s goldeneye and surf scoter, and national significance for the great blue heron.

Butler was lead author on a report published in 2015 (based on monthly surveys 2011-13) on marine birds in Burrard Inlet, Indian Arm and English Bay. It showed that birds eating mussels such as the scoters are doing relatively well compared with fish eaters like the grebes. One-day numbers of greater scaup peaked at 1,627 and surf scoters at 7,557 in December/January, Barrows goldeneye at 2,133 in February, white-winged scoters at 2,502 and bufflehead at 252 in March, and glaucous-winged gulls at 4,114 in September.

Herring are critical to the food chain but their eggs fail to develop on creosote wood pilings. In response, streamkeepers have successfully wrapped pilings with plastic netting in areas such as Squamish and False Creek to encourage spawning, but that is only a short-term solution. Creosote is a cheap wood preservative compared with concrete or steel.

In Washington state, the Department of Fish and Wildlife prohibits creosote pilings in marinas and terminals in saltwater as well as in any hydraulic project in freshwater.

The port has the power to implement restrictions on creosote even in the absence of federal regulations and is reviewing the environmental implications along with potential alternatives and costs.

“It has to be science-based,” Brown says of any restriction. “If federal fisheries has no law against it, we have to do the research ourselves.”

Expansion plans

We proceed eastward to Crab Park at Portside — a refuge of green on the Downside Eastside waterfront where community concerns focus on shipping giant DP World’s planned $320-million container expansion at Centerm next door.

The port owns the industrial land, is officially proposing the expansion, and is conducting its own environmental assessment — the sort of cosy system that port opponents around the region decry as a conflict of interest that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau must address.

Roger Emsley has worked on port-related community committees in Delta for the past decade and laments: “During that time, I have watched as the port has become more and more arrogant, less prepared to listen to community concerns, less interested in listening to alternative viewpoints on environmental matters and on a number of key issues simply refusing to address matters that are raised in and by communities that host port operations.”

In total, the port manages 16,000 hectares of water and 1,000 hectares of land.

Any expansion to Centerm would require habitat compensation, although details won’t be available until late summer.

Does industry push back in such cases?

“In the early years there was resistance,” Brown responds. “But I’m seeing an increased awareness and I like to think people want to do the right thing. It’s part of doing business.”

Experience shows that even the best human intensions can be a poor substitute for natural habitat.

Bird life

East of Centerm stands an artificial nest platform constructed by the cement giant, Lafarge, in 2009 to benefit a pair of bald eagles nesting in a lone spindly cottonwood tree on the property.

When the cottonwood finally blew over in 2014, the eagles moved to a nest site in a fir tree in an east-side residential neighbourhood rather than take to the artificial platform.

Butler remains ever vigilant for wing beats off our vessel’s stern section. “See those scoters, all along there? Maybe 1,000 or so. They swallow the mussels then take them offshore to digest them.”

Our journey continues to New Brighton Park, where restoration plans are afoot for construction of a foreshore saltwater marsh for fish and birds, subtidal rocky reefs, trails and “daylighting” of Renfrew Creek.

Next door is Viterra Cascadia Terminal, where peregrine falcons feed on pigeons attracted to the grain silos; they are part of an urban success story for the raptors across North America.

MacVicar, a former high school teacher at the forefront of marine education projects, delicately guides the vessel on a flood tide against a strong easterly wind. Several pelagic cormorants resting on the bottom of the Second Narrows Bridge foundations hint at a greater story.

Butler looks skyward and reveals: “They nest in the girders under the bridge. Probably 100 to 200. They’re safe from eagles.”

In the past, another 90 pairs of double-crested cormorants have been observed nesting on a transmission tower at Second Narrows. And on the north side of the inner harbour, up to an estimated 10 pairs of pigeon guillemots nest under the pier at Lonsdale Quay in North Vancouver.

It’s further evidence of the resilience of nature in an unnatural world.

Up ahead of us is the Chevron Canada Ltd. refinery, the last of its kind in Burrard Inlet.


The refinery receives oil from both Kinder Morgan’s Westridge terminal and from tankers.

In 2014, the operation spewed out 849 tonnes of major air pollutants, including nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide, volatile organic compounds and small particulates, according to the Environment Canada National Pollutant Release Inventory.

That makes the refinery the third-largest air polluter in Metro Vancouver after two cement plants: Lafarge, in Richmond, at 1,975 tonnes, and Lehigh, in Delta, at 2,280 tonnes.

The bigger concern for marine life is the threat of a major oil spill, including from a seven-fold increase to 34 tankers per month associated with Kinder Morgan’s proposed $6.8-billion twinning of its pipeline to Westridge Terminal in Burnaby.

A 2015 oil spill study by Genwest Systems Inc. for the cities of Vancouver and Burnaby and the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation suggested up to 90 per cent of the oil from a major oil tanker spill in the Burrard Inlet would reach the shoreline within 48 hours, “causing significant impacts to human health, the environment and the economy.”

We scoot across to the north side of the inlet and take shelter from growing white caps in an area just off the mouth of the Seymour River. The piles of sulphur on the North Shore near Lions Gate Bridge are a more familiar site than the piles of salt here at the inner port’s eastern bookend. They come from vast evaporation ponds at Guerrero Negro, Mexico, a site I experienced only a few months ago during a motorcycle ride through Baja.

No one wishes for an environmental calamity, but some good can come from it.

In 2007, a Kinder Morgan pipeline ruptured in Burnaby, spewing 234,000 litres of oil into a Burnaby neighbourhood and ultimately Burrard Inlet. More than 220,000 litres of oil escaped and 70,000 litres reached Burrard Inlet.

A provincial court judge in 2011 ordered Kinder Morgan, B. Cusano Contracting Inc., and R.F. Binnie and Associates Ltd. to each pay $149,000 to the Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation to help fund habitat-restoration projects in Burrard Inlet.

Several estuaries in Burrard Inlet benefited from the money, including Seymour River, Mosquito Creek, Lynn Creek and Mackay Creek. Work has included reshaping the estuaries, removing invasive plants, bringing in logs for habitat complexity, replanting native vegetation with fencing to keep out Canada geese, and erecting piles of rocks for snakes and bird nests.

Butler has witnessed the return of several species over the decades such as the bald eagle, trumpeter swan and peregrine falcon — once humanity stopped shooting them or poisoning them with DDT.

He is confident Burrard Inlet can come back, too. Creating critical habitat for forage fish such as herring and sand lance and providing a pathway for them to hide from predators is a great start.

“We know what has to be done; it’s just a matter of working away at it,” Butler concludes.